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Arrigo Boito: Mefistofele
Samuel Ramey (Mefistofele), Gabriela Benacková (Margherita/Elena), Dennis O’Neill (Faust), Judith Christin (Marta), Emily Manhart (Pantalis), Daniel Harper (Wagner), Douglas Wunsch (Nereo), Dancers, Orchestra and Chorus of The San Francisco Opera, Ian Robertson (Chorus Master), Maurizio Arena (Conductor), Robert Carsen (Stage Director), Alphonse Poulin (Choreography), Michael Levin (Set Designer), Jennifer Green (Costume Designer), Paul Alba (Wigs and Makeup Designer), Thomas J. Munn (Lighting Designer), Roger Gans (Stage Sound Designer), Brian Large (Television Director), David Horn (Television Producer)
Recording: The War Memorial, San Francisco, California (1989) – 160’
Arthaus Musik #109147 (or Blu-ray #109148) – Sound PCM Stereo – Format NTSC 4:3 – Region 0 – Subtitles in Italian, German, English, French and Spanish – Booklet in German, French and English (Distributed by Naxos of America)

San Francisco Opera’s new production of this sumptuously decadent Robert Carsen production in 1989 brings Arrigo Boito’s Mefistofele devilish delight to the stage after failure to court favor with its audience after its 1868 premiere at La Scala. Though weaker when compared to Gounod’s Faust (1859), the tendering steeps inside the underworld through a wildly post-modern spectacle.

Close teamwork by Carsen and set designer Michael Levin help create an avant-garde braiding of caractères de genre. Jennifer Green brilliantly infuses a cross section of dressings: macabre nudity and semi-nudity commedia dell’arte (“Walpurgis Night”), saccharin-laden Classical Greek attire (Act IV), Venetian masks, crowns and white robes donned by Ian Robertson’s San Francisco Opera Choir (“Prologue” and “Epilogue.”) Levin’s multi-tiered Baroque theatre, replete with white purity lighting by Thomas J. Munn, is stunning and in vogue of a Greek theatre format; however, “The Garden” scene places action on an Astro-turf rotating rake that’s tacky.

If credence can be given to Boito’s Mefistophele, it’s enhanced through the baton. Maurizio Arena delicately sifts through this chaotically quixotic music with thoughtful delivery and careful detail. By no stretch of the imagination is this music a breeze to fly through, and Arena permits everyone to shine and be significant.

At the prime of his career, Samuel Ramey is indelible as he makes the most out of his title role: a sense of distance but encased with sinister quality and disciplined articulation. Hurdling both ends of the dramatic equation, Gabriela Benacková draws deep pathos during her incarceration scene, while her “Lontano, lontano” duet invoking Dennis O’Neill as Faust, is bathed in one of the few pockets of softness. Daniel Harper as Wagner doesn’t have much sing time, so the result is bland. On the other hand, Judith Christin’s Martha adds lighter touches to an already deep score.

Strongly associated with Mefistofele, choreographer Alphonse Poulin never loses a wandering eye. The “Kermesse”, heavily dominated by ‘eye-candy’, lights up the stage with clever crowd movements while the “Epilogue”, though certainly less active in scope, sends an exultant chill up one’s spine.

Devoid of memorable music alongside bits of mired longueur, Mefistofele realizes itself by the way in which it is explained on stage. Robert Carsen has redeemed Boito.

Christie Grimstad




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